Charmed Circle


Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company, by James R. Mellow, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974, 528 pp, photo illustrated, $12.95.

She is a short Jewish woman, somewhat inclined to stoutness, an Aquarian born in early February, an exile from her native country since her twenties—but never mind her origins or her present address, she feels her true allegiance has always been to America. She is a writer—of fiction, plays, history, philosophy, polemics—whose work is ignored for years before it finally reaches the wide audience her partisans say it has always deserved. She is an intellectual who is widely denounced as a crackpot. She is, as friend and mentor to a dozen younger intellectuals in a dozen diverse fields, the leader of a new and radical movement. But, however permanent her ideas, her friendships are short—ending bitterly in a series of seemingly arbitrary personal and ideological excommunications. In her later years, she is a best-selling author and a guaranteed sellout in her few public lectures. She is temperamental and stimulating, perverse and brilliant. Her name is Gertrude Stein.

This year is the centennial of the enigmatic Ms. Stein's birth, and one of the most satisfying of the observances is James R. Mellow's biography CHARMED CIRCLE. The circle of the title is the coterie of artists and thinkers who surrounded Ms. Stein during her years in Paris, and Mellow's book is as much a biography of Stein's "circle" as it is of Stein herself. And this is fitting. For Gertrude Stein's main importance in literary history is her influence—and those of her ideas which made her influential. Regrettably, Mellow does not consider these ideas critically or in detail; the reader who desires a good general understanding of Ms. Stein's theories will need to supplement CHARMED CIRCLE, and he could do little better than to supplement it with William H. Gass's "Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language," an essay on which much of the following discussion is based. [1]

Ms. Stein's central idea—which she tirelessly proselytised in her lectures and demonstrated in her own writings—is that in artistic writing, writing which aims to present a perspective on the world rather than discourse on some aspect of the world, writing which is literature, words should not be used merely as counters for concepts. Instead, she argued, they should be exploited for their own sensuous characteristics, their looks and their sounds. A novel is not a biography, she insisted; a poem is not a philosophical article; a short story is not a scientific report. In historical, philosophical and scientific writing, it is proper to use words transparently, apprehending only the concepts they stand for and ignoring the audio-visual characteristics of the words themselves. But in artistic writing, sentences must be composed with careful attention to the look and sound of the words that make them up. Indeed, it is these sensuous characteristics of the words themselves that is of primary importance in artistic writing; the concepts the words represent are of purely secondary importance, or of none at all. In a way, the whole of Stein's theory of literature is contained in her response to Ernest Hemingway, when Hemingway objected to some of Sherwood Anderson's work, calling it tasteless. "Taste," Stein informed him, "has nothing to do with sentences."


Predictably, this notion of literature as sensuously pleasant sentences produced some rather strange writing. The much-quoted line "Pigeons on the grass alas," from her opera FOUR SAINTS IN THREE ACTS, is an example. Another is provided in her book HOW TO WRITE: "Way-laid made it known as quince cake. This is a perfect sentence because it refers to regretting." Yes, this is serious. No, it is not nonsense. If sequences of sounds can be meaningful (and what else is music?), then, in principle, the sounds of words could be so arranged as to be meaningful to the reader, irrespective of the individual conceptual meanings of the words involved; if sequences of lines and spaces can be meaningful and thus pleasurable (as in the decorative arts), [2] then, in principle, the lines and spaces which go to make up the letters of the alphabet could be so arranged as to be meaningful and pleasurable, irrespective of the alphabetical significance of the letters involved. I don't agree that such works, ones in which the look and sound of words were all that counted, would be easy to compose, or that there would be many such works, or that they would be worth anyone's attention once they were completed; I argue only that there is a level on which Stein's ideas make sense.

Why then is most of her own writing nearly unintelligible and, when it is intelligible, enervatingly dull for most readers? The answer, I think, is that when an artist puts sensuous concretes together into a work, it is part of his job to include only those concretes, only those sensory units, which are relevant to some central, unifying theme; it is part of his job to guard against either excluding elements which the appreciator needs to apprehend the work as a coherent whole or including elements which have nothing to do with the theme that renders the work a coherent whole. Letters and words and sentences have a look to them, true; they also have sounds. But they also have conventionally assigned conceptual meanings. And if the words which make up a work of literary art are arranged without regard for those meanings then there will be elements, namely those meanings, in the work which have nothing to do with the work. And the result will be unintelligibility. It may be that the sentence "Way-laid made it known as quince cake" refers to regretting in the way it combines sounds and lines (though I admit to being unable to see how), but the sentence refers to nothing of the sort in the assigned conceptual meanings of its component words—in fact, it seems to refer to nothing whatever. The Stein method might work in a poem or story which used nonsense words, words which had never been assigned conceptual meanings (Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" seems an obvious case in point). But in Stein's own works, the words used already have conceptual meanings and they are used without regard for those meanings, with the result that Stein's writing lacks coherence and, as art, simply doesn't work.

Still, and this is a point Mellow's biography helps to underscore, the Stein theory is important because it served to call the attention of other writers to the sensuous characteristics of the words they made their works out of. And these writers were able to do what Stein herself was unable to do—see that the look and sound of sentences had to be relevant to the work's main theme in the same way and for the same reasons as the meanings of the individual words and syntactical structures. They saw that Stein was right in thinking artistic writing was better when its look and sound was attended to; but they saw that she was wrong in believing literature was just sentences—they saw that it had to be at least meaningful sentences, sentences in which look, sound and assigned conceptual import all played a part. Gertrude Stein's importance as a theorist is thus akin to the importance of, say, an ethical theorist whose application of her ideas to politics is riddled with errors, but whose ideas on value can be combined with more careful work in social theory to produce a stronger political philosophy than had ever existed before.

Mellow's biography, as I say, doesn't go far or critically into all these ideas; what it does is to make vividly real the mind and personal history of the woman who had them. Her early brilliant academic career, which focussed on psychology and medicine and brought her to the impressed attention of William James; her early feminism which later gave way to her recognition that she must seek her own ends, not those of women in general; her many intellectual and artistic friendships; all of it is included in Mellow's book in generous detail. Indeed, if CHARMED CIRCLE may be said to have any major flaw it is the author's occasional habit of presenting more detail than anyone could reasonably want (as when he tells us how many servants Stein had at her country home in one short season). Altogether, though, it is a beautifully achieved work of biography, one which superably captures its eccentric subject.

Jeff Riggenbach is a graduate of the University of Houston, where he majored in literature and philosophy. A frequent contributor to REASON, he is currently writing a book on literary theory.

[1] William H. Gass, FICTION AND THE FIGURES OF LIFE, (Knopf 1971), pp. 79-96.
[2] See, in this connection, Susanne K. Langer, FEELING AND FORM, (Scribners 1953), pp. 59-68.